Campus Life

The Strategic Plan for Sustainability: frequently asked questions

What is the concept of sustainability?

The global conversation around the term sustainability can be traced back to a seminal report produced in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), titled Our Common Future. This report is also known as the Brundtland Report, after the Chair of the Commission and former Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland. Our Common Future presented the global community with the following definition of sustainable development:

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

How does Penn State define sustainability?

The term "sustainability" carries broad meaning and can be interpreted differently by individuals and organizations from across sectors of society. For the purposes of developing Penn State’s Strategic Plan for Sustainability, the University Sustainability Council has offered the following definition:

Sustainability: "The simultaneous pursuit of economic well-being, human health and prosperity, and environmental quality in a manner that balances the needs of present and future generations."

Why is sustainability important at Penn State?

The preamble of Penn State's current strategic plan, Priorities for Excellence, states that one key to Penn State's continuing success will be "creating a sustainable university, not just in conventional environmental terms, but in a wide array of resource dimensions, including fiscal sustainability. … [I]ncreasing pressures on global resources and environmental conditions make it imperative that Penn State embrace sustainability in its many dimensions in ways that would position the University as a leader nationally and internationally."

Priorities for Excellence also lists sustainability as one of the University's core values, noting that "sustainability is researched, taught, promoted and practiced."

Why is Penn State writing a strategic plan for sustainability?

The Strategic Plan for Sustainability will provide the roadmap for ensuring that the Priorities for Excellence broad commitments to sustainability are met.

In spring 2011 Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Rodney Erickson and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Albert Horvath charged the creation of a 12-member University Sustainability Council composed of faculty, staff and students that would identify broad goals and opportunities to leverage and link the many sustainability initiatives already occurring at the University. The council also was asked to recommend new thrusts for operational initiatives, academic programs and administrative services associated with sustainability.

The Strategic Plan for Sustainability will follow the University's strategic planning framework, and specific strategies and metrics will be developed concurrently at the college, campus and unit levels.

Who is on the committee leading this effort?

The University Sustainability Council includes students who have expressed interest in sustainability, staff who oversee health-, business- and facilities-oriented sustainability initiatives and faculty members from Penn State's Center for Sustainability and Institutes for Energy and the Environment who bring practical experience for sustainability-related research and curricula development.

In addition, a Sustainability Strategic Plan Advisory Board advises council co-chairs on the planning process, identifies necessary present and future resources for the plan's development and implementation, responds to requests for interim review of plan elements by the council, monitors council progress, and acts as a resource for the council and as providers of additional resources as necessary. Advisory board members include University leaders who represent faculty, staff, student, University-partner and public service interests.

A complete list of council and advisory board members can be found at online.

How is sustainability good for environmental quality? Isn’t recycling and reducing energy use enough?

Recycling and switching off unneeded lights are excellent places to start. However, sustainability is a much larger concept than those two key habits and ultimately touches everything we do. Acting sustainably means making sure that every decision and action maximizes the benefits of that decision or action on our environment.

Like any large organization, Penn State purchases and uses large amounts and many different types of resources and products. These items come originally from our natural environment. Therefore, what we purchase, and from whom, has a significant impact on our air, water and land. During and following the use of these resources and products, Penn State generates waste, which it must pay to dispose of or recycle. All the disposable waste is returned to the environment. Sustainability gives us the tools to understand this environmental impact and to go "beyond compliance" when dealing with it.

Already, Penn State's sustainability efforts are benefiting the environment. For instance, at the University Park campus, 7,000 acres of land is managed using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices, which minimize the use of synthetic pesticides and reduces the negative impact of chemicals on our waterways and groundwater. Penn State Berks has converted all its off-road and diesel equipment to run on B20 biodiesel, with the support of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. This conversion initiative makes for good business and eco-friendly fuel, as it helps eliminate the environmental and financial impact of spills and releases of exhaust pollutants from diesel and hydraulic fuel. A list of Penn State's current sustainability efforts is at online.

How is sustainability a good business practice?

From an economic or financial perspective, sustainability is simply a lens through which previously unseen opportunities in efficiency, innovation, employee and customer engagement, and risk management come into focus. Sustainability accelerates the achievement of business goals and can often do so at a lower cost.

Penn State has recognized the financial opportunity of sustainability. For example, the University saves more than $4 million annually from energy conservation and efficiency projects, having decreased electricity usage nearly 8 percent between 2005 and 2011, despite having added about 1 million square feet of new building space. The University's commitment to energy-efficient building techniques and technologies includes an ongoing energy conservation program in all buildings. Also, the University Park campus avoids nearly $500,000 in annual expenses by recycling 59 percent of its solid waste instead of paying the $70-per-ton landfill tipping fee. That savings includes composting of more than 925 tons of food waste from locations including the six on-campus dining commons, Campus Catering, HUB Eateries, the Bryce Jordan Center, Nittany Lion Inn and The Penn Stater. Without composting, that waste would have ended up in a landfill, which would have included additional costs for tipping fees and fuel to truck the waste to the landfill.

What are Penn State's vision, mission and guiding principles for the strategic plan?

The vision states, "The Pennsylvania State University will be ecologically sound, socially responsible and financially strong, serving as a living laboratory for global sustainability."

The mission of the Penn State Strategic Plan for Sustainability is to integrate this vision into the University's teaching, research, outreach and operational functions in a manner that creates value for the University, the Commonwealth and society and prepares students, faculty and staff to contribute to the world as change agents and sustainability leaders.

The council determined seven guiding principles to inform the Strategic Plan for Sustainability's design and implementation: consistency, transformational capacity, inclusivity, interdisciplinarity, responsibility, measurement and transparency.

What are the strategic plan's goals?

The council has established five sustainability goals under consideration for refinement, clarification, assessment and measurement:

-- Create an integrated living laboratory for sustainability. We will implement continuous improvement efforts and best sustainability practices in our operations, facilities, and behaviors to provide an immersive sustainability experience.

-- Ensure that all Penn State students develop a deep understanding of and commitment to sustainability. We will prepare students to lead others in the implementation of sustainability strategies in their personal lives, local communities and professional pursuits.

-- Engage the Penn State community in learning about and pursuing sustainability. We will involve all students, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni, partners and supporters in learning about -- and taking meaningful action towards -- a sustainable world.

-- Develop, advance, integrate and deploy the knowledge, science and art of sustainability. We will accelerate and expand research into sustainability challenges from multi-disciplinary perspectives to develop and implement solutions in our local, regional, and global communities.

-- Advance sustainability within the larger society. We will fulfill Penn State’s land-grant mission to develop and implement innovative university-community partnerships that actively respond to the needs of the state and our broader communities.

How will the Strategic Plan for Sustainability affect employees at Penn State?

The SPS will provide employees with guidance on how to effectively integrate sustainability into the work they do at Penn State. It also will make clearer the resources that exist to support employees' efforts and identify the communication pathways for them to share ideas and feedback.

Where is Penn State in the strategic planning process?

To align with the guiding principles of inclusivity and transparency, this strategic planning approach is Penn State’s first strategic planning process to seek public input during the draft stage. Through Wednesday, Nov. 23, the council welcomes sustainability ideas from the public, from which draft goals and objectives will be shaped and refined. The council will complete a pre-final draft for review by the Board of Trustees by the end of 2011.

How can I contribute to the strategic planning process?

You can share your ideas via email by Wednesday, Nov. 23, at, on an online form at, or in person at a future town hall meeting to be held at Penn State campuses this semester.

What can I do to improve sustainability at Penn State?

A wealth of opportunities are listed at

Click on the image above to visit the form for sharing ideas with the University Sustainability Council, or send an email by Nov. 23 to Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated September 04, 2020